What are the Yoga Sutras

What are the Yoga Sutras?

You might have heard the “Yoga Sutras” mentioned once or twice in your yoga classes, and you might have even started wondering who “Patanjali” is. If both of those terms are brand new to you, that’s okay too! Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras form a large part of yoga philosophy, but it can be a bit difficult to understand how they fit in to #thesweatlife. That’s what this post is for: an introduction to Patanjali (the person) and his (her?) Sutras.

First off, what the heck is a “sutra”? Also known as “aphorisms,” sutras are short sayings that communicate some kind of truth. Of course, truth is contextual – what was “true” thousands of years ago may not be considered true nowadays. But Patanjali’s original sutras have been passed down and explored by many scholars and translators in order to extract and explain the wisdom they contain.

So you can think of sutras as short sayings that contain wisdom. Who came up with these wise words? Patanjali is the name of a person, likely a man, who lived some time between the second century BCE (100-200 years before the “current era”) and the fourth century CE (which ended in the year 400). Clearly, not much is known about Patanjali himself. In the tradition of other Indian sages before him, Patanjali was not into taking credit, so it is unsurprising that we know so little.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are made up of either 195 or 196 aphorisms, depending on the version you read. It’s important to understand that “yoga” in Patanjali’s time referred to something very different than the asana practice we focus on today. The Sutras focus on meditation, focus, discipline, personal habits, and enlightenment, rather than physical postures or exercise, to achieve mental purification.

The sutras are split into four parts. The first chapter, made up of 51 sutras, deals with concentration, meditation, and enlightenment. The focus in this chapter is on instructing the reader on the process to achieve “yoga” or the ability to calm the craziness of the mind (my words, not Patanjali’s). Patanjali defines the purpose of and obstacles in reaching yoga as well as the importance of steady practice and of letting go of results.

The second chapter is made up of 54 or 55 sutras and introduces the first six of the eight limbs of yoga. You can read about each of the limbs in our other posts; the purpose of moving through the eight limbs of yoga is to take a journey towards stillness in the mind, body, and soul.

The third chapter, made up of 56 sutras, focuses on the final two limbs of yoga and emphasizes the value of practicing and combining the final three limbs: Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. These limbs of the eight-fold path are all about attaining absolute concentration to the point of dissolving the perception of separation between the meditator and the object of meditation.

The fourth and final chapters is made up of 34 sutras that focus on the process and consequences of attaining liberation. To Patanjali, liberation meant liberation from the endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth, and a letting go of the impressions made by each subsequent existence. To him, the liberated yogi has gained freedom from any and all bondages.

So where do you start if you want to explore the Yoga Sutras? You can try starting at the beginning; it’s generally going to take a lot of time and thought to explore each sutra individually. Here’s the very first two from Patanjali:

1.1: Now begins the practice of yoga.

1.2: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.

If you are looking for more in your yoga, this is a wonderful place to start. Yoga is not just exercise; it is not about looking good or being the best in the room. The point of yoga is to calm the ripples (or wild sea waves, as it were) that constantly disturb the mind. The physical practice can be a wonderful entry to this part of the practice – many of us need movement to find mental stillness. But ultimately, the idea is to be able to carry stillness with you at all times.

Want to read more? There are many great resources out there that explain the Yoga Sutras in more depth. You can try picking up a published translation or check out some of the resources at Yoga Journal.

Happy studying!